Here are the first three chapters of the initial draft. They form the basis of Russel McLeans critique which you can find here.
Please feel free to read and comment. Do not feel free to re-post, pilfer or in anyway abuse my copyright. If you want to do anything at all with this exclusive material….ask and everything will be considered.
A Stroll Through London
It is the summer of 1842. With Mrs Bryce’s oft repeated mantra, “Lumbago ague and flu there’s nothing that onions can’t do” still fresh in his ears, Francis Perrin steps out of his lodgings and onto the streets of London. The stale but comforting aroma of musty sheets and boiled alliums is immediately, ferociously obliterated, by the overwhelming smell of the capital in the summer and in the rain. The Thames is connected to the rain; the rain is connected to the people, the people are connected to the streets and the streets empty into the Thames, creating some vast circulatory system of odour. It moves, rises, and falls in waves and feels to Perrin as if it is alive. The almost physical nature of this monstrous miasma causes an involuntary retch in Perrin and he makes a futile and pointless attempt to stop it by covering his mouth with his sleeve
As Perrin walks through the vast amphitheatre of competing smells he begins to focus in on it analysing it trying to understanding it. Rational thought and the application of the scientific principle is the only way he can cope and gain a measure of distraction and control over its all-pervasive nature.
The Thames provides the base note of this hellish perfume. It is an amalgamation of everything that has fallen, flowed or has been dropped, pumped, dumped into it, even the lime that is supposed to counter the smell just adds to the stew. It is a hollow stench of fermentation, death, and decay. It is a constant that jabs at the back of the throat and coats the airwaves. It is a still presence, malevolent dark and fetid.
Then there are the middle notes from the streets and trade of this endless city. Rain sluices the pavements bringing ever new combinations of liquid and semi solid detritus for the wary pedestrian to avoid. But it is only a matter of time before the inevitable splash from the pressing throngs add another shade of brown to Perrin’s increasingly stained trousers. With each step he takes he seems to encounter a new combination of animal vegetable or chemical waste from factories, market stalls shops and pubs. The smell of the Thames has matured into something old and persistent. The streets provide a newer fresher recipe, more pointed. You can pick up the differences of the area you walk through; discarded vegetables and unsold produce unfit for human consumption in the market areas, stale rancid beer and vomit around the pubs and the inevitable streams of shit and piss washing out of the rookeries, alleys and lanes that branch out from the street like dark veins doing their bit to keep this monstrous beast that feeds on all that is wrong in the city alive; this animal of ordure and suffering that has made London its lair.
Inevitably, Perrin encounters the top note in this malign concoction, the piece de résistance, the aromatic hell of humanity itself. It is summer, people sweat, it dries, they sweat again ad nauseum. The vast majority never wash, Perrin likes to think of himself a clean fellow, he has a bath once a month whether he needs it or not. But he is in the minority and the results of this basic human process are that each individual has developed their own unique human varnish, a personal musk that announces their presence day and night. However, when it rains and the vast sensory circulatory system between the Thames, the city and its people is complete, the varnish dissolves. Every passer-by gives of a heightened signature of their job, social standing, diet and personal circumstances. The musk is always there even if muffled by cheap scent. The acrid note of urine that has splashed and dried over and over again on crotches of trousers which are rarely washed is a familiar constant. Sleeves that have been endlessly wiped across overfilled jaws are held over mouths to little avail and display their history as Perrin walks past. The constant chewing on rotten food with a selection of tobacco stained teeth lined with a green film broadcast the variety and poor quality of the food and its cooking. The final finesse is provided by disease and infection, people spit, hawk, cough at each other and whatever ails them is communicated in an almost infinite variety of bad breath that never fails to surprise and appal Perrin.
It certainly isn’t like Devon.
A hansom washes pass and the familiar smell of a horse shitting in the street comes as a blessed relief to Perrin. A reminder of cleaner times and the honest smells of his home; the salt tang sea, the grassy perfumed meadow and the smell of apples dissolving into cider. He walks as quickly as possible, shuffling his papers under his arm trying to keep them dry and reflecting that even though he couldn’t really afford it, he really should have taken a cab. This is an important meeting, probably the most important in his life. If it goes well, he will be set fair and sail to Africa with the opportunity to uncover and understand a mystery that could ……. Perrin, truth be told, didn’t as yet know what he might discover let alone if he might understand it. If pressed and was truthful to himself, he had no real idea what, if any, use it, and he could be to The Cadre. It was a story, a legend there was no guarantee if it was true or even if it might live up to Perrin’s speculative interpretations. But they were interested; and if The Cadre were interested and took a shine to you and your idea they gave you the means, the rope of opportunity and invited you to hang yourself with it or fashion a means of escape solely by providing them with something to their advantage. That was the deal, there was no negotiation with The Cadre, no going back. Perrin was on a road to somewhere, he hoped it wasn’t a road to nowhere or even worse……
Enough of the reverie he admonishes himself, you are a willing participant you are eager and keen to be a part of this thing, the opportunity is immense. Perrin turns into High Holborn and stiffens his back, makes his stride more purposeful and puffs out his chest as if he were on parade and being inspected, and in this exaggerated and highly mannered fashion walks into Benekey’s as if he was a regular and his presence is anticipated.
An Encounter with Greatness
The defining characteristics of Benekey’s to Perrin’s eye were smoke, beer, gin and grease, a solid patina of which seems to coat every surface. A pub of sorts with reputation for wine and food, what sets it apart from numerous other venues with a similar claim is that its layout provides for many alcoves containing tables where its customers can meet and talk with a degree of discretion. The only drawback to this arrangement is that Perrin has no idea where to go and a polite enquiry at the crowded bar is met with a curt “No idea. I’m not yer bleedin’ servant, find’em yourself”. The upshot of this is that he finds himself peering into the dark panelled recesses and being met with various curses and epithets to leave in the most precise and timely manner at his disposal. Everybody it seems is having a conversation they want nobody else to know about. He peers into the next booth. Seated around the table are a coterie of flamboyantly dressed and very gay young men. They appear to be hanging onto the every word of a senior member of the clergy, who upon seeing Perrin beams benignly at him.
“Were you invited my son?” Perrin shakes his head. The bishop smiles at him “Oh, in that case, please fuck off!” Perrin retreats hastily and somewhat nonplussed stands in the bar wondering what to do next.
“Aha there you are my boy”. The long equine face of John Herschel pops out from the booth next door. As always, he wears an air of good humour around him, his mouth always seeming to be on the verge of a smile. Herschel finds life intoxicating. The fact that he is a renowned mind and a prominent figure in the emerging “science” of astronomy as well as one of the founders of The Cadre is of little concern to him, what matters is the present, the situation and the company.
“Sit yourself down Perrin, my you look a tad flustered and damp, a restorative is required”. He beckons with a languid hand and amazingly somebody looms above them almost immediately. “Your best ale and a bottle of the claret please…the real claret”. The figure nods and disappears returning swiftly with a bottle and glass plus a large tankard with a scummy foam edge filled to the brim with brown liquid with bits of vegetable matter floating in it.
“It’s beer”, says Herschel helpfully seeing Perrin’s worried look. “Shepherd Neame, an excellent brewer from Kent, their best, I believe; Bishops Finger.” A wide smile spreads across Herschel’s face. “Which I would suggest is the very least our young friends next door will be getting from their mentor the Arch Bishop” Perrin notices that Herschel has emphasised the “Arch” but has no idea why, Herschel is grinning expectantly at him and Perrin concludes that he must have said something witty so smiles nods.
“Oh, very good sir”. Honour now apparently satisfied Perrin wipes the edge of the tankard with his sleeve adding a new and precise line of dirt to it and drinks. It is cool, with a mellow fruity earthiness balanced by mild astringency, it is refreshing and utterly delicious, doubly so given his expectations as someone bought up in the west country. After another long pull on his beer Perrin takes stock of his surroundings. At present, they are alone apart from the background thrum of London society, discussing matters that they deem sufficiently important for no one else to know about. The space is enclosed with wood panelling, brass gaslights illuminate pages and cartoons from the latest periodicals held behind glass and holds a rough table that is adorned with a myriad of carvings and knife marks. A private space that could tell stories of numerous trysts, meetings, arguments, decisions, and fights.
“Will Mr Babbage be joining us.” Enquires Perrin.
“Presently,” Replies Herschel. “I believe he is currently with the Admiralty, showing them a simplified electromechanical Analytical Engine for use as an aid to their navigation and gunnery expertise for the Navy’s new iron hulled steam ships”
Perrin is both thrilled and aghast at the familiarity with which Herschel has confided what to Perrin seems to him to be privileged information.
Herschel oblivious to Perrins look of incredulity and concern continues “I believe he and Ada have come up with a number of programs that will not only improve on Airy’s rather crude compass correctors but also allow the AE to identify the profile of foreign vessels and estimate their speed and course for intercept purposes, and the necessary settings for the guns should they be required. Charles estimates that it will improve pursuit times significantly and gun accuracy by up to 43%” Herschel stops, seeing the look on Perrin’s face and changes tack. “Hmm you are concerned that I am imparting secret information that should only be entrusted to the inner cabal of The Cadre aren’t you Perrin?”
Perrin nods and gulps nervously.
“You are wondering if this is a test to secure your loyalty by means of secrets that if revealed to certain third parties would result in your untimely and no doubt grisly and painful demise….”
“Umm I errr….well yes actually”
“What do you think would happen if our “enemies” found out about our new machine and its programs?”
“Well they would take steps to combat the threat or to steal the machine and its programs I suppose”
“Let them” says Herschel to Perrins total amazement.
“Well, let them try to design faster ships of a different profile that we could not somehow photograph and analyse. Let them steal an AE and all the computers needed to run them and the specialised infrastructure the ships need to house them. Let them design their own programs to navigate and control their ships and to recognise and engage with our fleet. Do you see the problem for our enemies Perrin?”
Perrin realises that this is a test, Herschel is looking at him with intent. Gone the good humour of a moment ago, this is a different Herschel with a fixed stare looking straight at Perrin peering into his brain wondering what he might find.
Perrin takes a deep breath and leaps of the intellectual cliff in front of him. “Well I suppose the magnitude of the task would be considerable, it is not just the one thing is it. The advantage we have with the AE is both material and intellectual. Add to that the human capital we have developed and invested in the enterprise. Hmm in such a situation the total resource and effort required to organise, manage, and control such a thing, well I believe that would be an undertaking that could defeat even the most desperate and resourceful of foes. Indeed, as I think it through further where would you start? One computer knows but a small piece of the picture; one drawing of the AE tells you nothing about how to program it even assuming you could build one in the first place and that would take time. We have whole institutes devoted to the design development and manufacture of the AE, such things cannot be a secret. Our enemies already know about what we are doing and can surmise how we do it yet they are incapable of reproducing our advantage. So why waste energy and resources keeping a secret that everybody already knows about.” Perrin stops at this point surprising himself by where he has ended up. Herschel he notes, is no longer staring at him with a gimlet eye, at some point in his discourse he has resumed his air of detached amusement and is drinking the claret.
“Bravo young Perrin, we shall make you a worthy member of The Cadre yet. We hide in plain sight protected by the genius that is Charles Baggage”
“I’m not sure I follow”
“Indeed very few people do. You are aware of his seminal work “On the Economy of Machinery and Manufactures”?”
“Of course, It was hugely popular and I understand it ran for many editions”
“Yes, much to the amusement of Charles and the frustration of his publishers, as he used them as an example of market rigging and price fixing. However, like most works of popular science or economics many people buy the book, considerably fewer read it and even less understand it. The division and application of labour allows us both to create the AE in the most efficient way possible and protect it at the same time, nobody has the complete picture or answer. It even allows us to be consistent with Charles distaste for patents and the exclusivity of knowledge.”
“But surely even allowing for that somebody somewhere will eventually reproduce what we have and compete?”
“They might very well, but suppose in the fullness of time they do…..what then will be our situation, our reply or recourse?”
Oh God thinks Perrin, why oh why did he have to pursue the issue, the cliff beckons again. He takes a deep swig of his beer and steps off. “Well, time is the one thing we will have, where they will be in the future is not where we will be, assuming we continue to progress.”
“Indeed” beams Herschel “Time is most definitely our biggest ally and protection. We have the advantage of science and economy with us. If this is a race, we have already started it several laps ahead of the competition. Have you ever heard of the idea “The Amalgamation of Advantage by the use of Immediate Obsolescence?””
Perrin feels a hollow feeling entering his guts, like the one when you are falling in a dream and about to hit the ground…..
“Of course you haven’t Charles never published that one”
Relief courses through Perrin
“Charles realised that what the public, the government, the navy and our eager friends abroad see is not the extent, the apex of what we have achieved only what we choose to show at a particular time not all we could reveal, or indeed are able to do. We have the future already planned and under development, each iteration dependant on the last, each building on what has gone before and preserving our advantage. Quite frankly I couldn’t care less if today’s “secrets” do leak out.”
Emboldened by his relief Perrins interrupts. “But someone could still steal that “apex” and catch us!”
“Unlikely but theoretically possible, what would you do then…..?
Desperately Perrin tries to think of something intelligent to say based on the advantages of science, economics and the division of labour…….
“Um well we could just blow them up”
“Indeed” Grins Herschel broadly, “and The Cadre are VERY good at doing that,”
At that moment there is a commotion outside the booth and angry voices rise above the general hubbub.
“I’m sorry sir…oh sorry madam! But on the question of “spilling your pint” I most certainly did not. As you can plainly see, my momentum and direction of movement if reversed would put me approximately 2ft away from you when the alleged instance took place. If I might venture to suggest the most likely loss of your beverage is from your own unsteady gait due no doubt to a rapid intake of many previous beverages of a similar nature…..”
A volley of expletives erupts in response and Herschel stands up.
“Ah Charles is here” He leans out of the booth and grabs at a passing coat tail. “Get in here you idiot before someone lamps you.”
The coat tail is attached to a short slightly rotund man wearing a grey jacket over a flamboyant red green and gold waistcoat which is rather at odds with his somewhat doughy plain face and the indignant expression of a child who has had his favourite toy confiscated.
“Get off me Herschel, I am quite able to protect myself you know. I’m sure the person concerned would have reacted positively to the logic and persuasiveness of my argument, since it was based on the self-evident truth of the matter.”
“The only thing self-evident to me Charles was that you were but a few seconds from having your lights punched out. Logic can only take you so far as I keep reminding you. You really do need to work on your social skills, especially when confronted by those more intellectually challenged or drunk than you.”
“Rubbish,” Babbage harrumphs as he settles into the booth. “Even those not blessed with advanced learning capabilities can learn from simple explanations if presented in a straightforward manner……”
“As opposed to patronising and condescending you mean”
“I don’t know what you are implying”
“Indeed you don’t Charles and that is always one of our ever present problems when trying to secure additional funding for our research.”
“Look if those fools and imbeciles at the Royal Society led by that simpleton Airey see fit not to understand even the basics of what we can achieve with the continued development of the AE and our other new technologies then why should I pay any attention to their pathetic objections and wittering about religious values and principles in science.”
“Why indeed,” says Herschel drily “Except that despite your best efforts to ridicule and belittle them they still represent a significant section of the scientific community whom it would be good to have supporting us rather than being a constant thorn in our side.”
“Well, all they have to do is agree with me and the issue would be solved. Anyway whilst we have Wellington the point is mute…..Is this Perrin? How do you do young man so glad you could join us.” Babbage fishes in his jacket pocket and hands Perrin an ornately gilded card. “Here, my particulars. Take it my boy, you never know when it might come in handy eh?” He winks at Perrin who puts the card into his jacket pocket. “Don’t mind Herschel he worries too much about what others think, always gets in the way I always find. Oh did I tell you John I ran into Tennyson earlier on and I was able to suggest some improvements to his latest work”
Herschel sighs deeply with a pained expression of rueful resignation.
“Oh God Charles amongst the list of your many and varied talents I would venture to suggest that poetry is most definitely not one of them”
“Nonsense John all art has a basis in science and I was merely able to put him straight on a simple issue of population dynamics”
Herschel buries his head in his hands muttering. Perrin at his point feeling he should contribute something to the conversation decides to get involved.
“That sounds most interesting Mr Babbage please tell us more”
Herschel shoots Perrin a look that says “Oh dear God are you completely stupid, I am beginning to regret inviting you” and slumps into his chair concentrating intently on his wine. Unconcerned or entirely oblivious to his friend’s indifference Babbage resumes.
“Well it is rather amusing really, you see in the otherwise beautiful poem “The Vision of Sin” there is a line that reads,” Babbage puffs himself up and orates the line in question. “Every moment dies a man, every moment one is born”. Well it must be manifest to anybody that if this were true, then the population of the world would be at a standstill. So I suggested, most helpfully I thought, that he change the line in the next edition of the poem to read “Every moment dies a man, every moment 1 and1/16 is born…..”
Herschel splutters and coughs so hard he spits wine all over the table and some starts dribbling from his nose. Perrin just googles unable to think of anything to say.
“…The actual figure is so long I could not get it into a line, but I believe the figure of 1 and 1/16 will be sufficiently accurate for the purposes of poetry. Are you going to waste all that wine William, is there a glass for me?”
Herschel mops up the wine with his handkerchief, blows his nose and orders more Claret. Babbage seemingly unaware of his friend’s and Perrins reaction sits happily with a glass and resumes regaling them with his latest exploits.
“So the admiralty were most impressed – as they should have been – with the program my dear Ada has developed to improve gun targeting and accuracy….”
“What about the issue of computers Charles?” Interrupts Herschel.
“Ah well umm yes errr that still remains a slight problem….”
Herschel turns to Perrin and explains “You see Perrin on land the need for computers to help program, run and support the AE is understood and the provision of well-trained young people is not an issue. The work is well paid and is a good career for the working class. However, the demands and requirements of the navy seem somewhat at odds with the proclivities and aptitudes of our computers.”
“I’m not sure I follow” Says Perrin.
“Good computers often find given authority difficult, always seem to get seasick and appear to be completely useless in all aspects of physical seamanship. So, the Navy at large regard them merely as liabilities that need feeding and nursemaiding for which they have neither the time, space or inclination.”
“They are just looking at it the wrong way William”. Interjects Babbage. “All we need to do is finalise the upgrades to the Nemesis and they’ll soon change their tune. Anyway let us not bore this young man with such trifles We are here to set Perrin off on an adventure that will unleash a new level of technological superiority for the Empire, I can feel it in my bones.”
“Well I umm am of course err most grateful for your faith in my…..”
“…story,” deadpans Herschel. “It is a story Charles, a myth, there is minimal evidence and don’t forget its origin is via a Frenchman.”
Internally Perrin is grateful that Herschel is playing down his thesis, Babbage already strikes him as somebody who can get overtaken by the idea of something rather than the reality of the situation.
“Well even the French sometimes tell the truth, the law of averages tells us that John. When are our other guests arriving, I’m starving, and they do a rather good chop here or so I’m told.”
A Meeting of Minds
As if on que the booth is suddenly filled with shadow as two large forms enter, there is a strong smell of leather, tobacco, brandy, and an unmistakeable air of authority laced with menace. A very large thick veined staff with a distinct head like a man’s shrunken skull strikes the floor with a loud powerful thump within an inch of Perrins foot causing both him and the floorboards to jump.
“Babbage.” says the first with an air of amused contempt.
“Burton.” Says Babbage with all the authority he can muster, but being seated with Sir Richard Francis Burton looming over him he is at a distinct physical disadvantage and visibly shrinks into the recesses of the booth. “Err.. please allow me to introduce John Herschel and the subject of our meeting this evening Francis Perrin.”
“I know of you Herschel, but you Perrin hmm…. in my line of work, I pride myself as a man who knows of others especially when I am supposed to do business with them. But I know nothing of you sir, so this is not a situation I find acceptable especially given the rather cryptic nature of the invite, no doubt due to the influence of The Cadre, who do so rather like to play such games with people.” At the mention of The Cadre Burton’s tone has lowered and an air of obvious distaste had enters his voice.
“All will become clear in due time Burton. Will you pray tell us the name of your manservant here?” Babbage tries to say this with all the innate superiority and privilege his position in society has conferred on him, and fails miserably.
The second man lowers his staff and a large heavy torso encased in a thick leather coat that creaks as he moves, leans over the table and invades Babbage’s personal space.
“I am nobody’s fucking manservant you puffed up little toad.” The words are shocking enough to Perrin but the voice is even more so. Rough like gravel, dark like tar it seems less spoken than spat out from a mouth full of tobacco stained teeth. These are overseen by a thick black moustache and guarded by the largest mutton chop sideburns Perrin has ever seen and there is a wart so large and prominent on the man’s cheek as to resemble a small hairy rodent half buried in his face.
“Allow me to introduce my travelling companion and aide de combat Lemmuel Killman-Salt. Late of Captain Skinner’s Corps of Irregular Cavalry and most recently present with me at the Anglo-Afghan War in an unofficial capacity” Burton grins enjoying the look of sheer terror on Babbage’s face.
“ Kiikkillm..man?” splutters Perrin. The man in question swivels silently and precisely into the face of Perrin. Two coal black eyes stare at the back of his skull.
“Killman to be more precise, it serves as both a name and a job description…… for those not careful enough to take note.”
Is he joking, wonders Perrin, nothing in his demeanour seems to suggested it, but the way he continues to stare at Perrin invites a response.
“How very helpful it must be to those who do not….and..errrr…. to be warned in advance of the situation.” Says Perrin weakly, regretting every last pathetic word of the sentence. The stare continues but is augmented by a low rumbling sound like rocks grinding on one another. Was that laughter?
“Ha! some spunk in this one Burton,” growls Salt, “not sure I see much of it in the rest of you milksop Mary’s, especially frog face over there.”
Babbage looks indignant opens his mouth as if to respond but in a rare moment of reflection thinks better of it and contents himself with burying his face into his wineglass as if trying to hide from the situation.
Herschel, as ever the peacemaker, decides that what is required in such socially awkward situations is alcohol, and lots of it. More wine and beer is ordered, plus a bottle of port for Burton and one of brandy for Salt, who utterly unconcerned with the uncomfortable situation contents himself with leaning back on his chair at a precarious angle drinking direct from the bottle and in a feat of supreme balance rolling a cheroot, the sweet-smelling smoke from which he blows casually and quite deliberately into Perrins face. “Call me Salt, Mary” he says to Perrin
Perrin, trying to engage politely asks. “I do not recognise that smell, what flavour of tobacco is that Mr Salt?”
There is a long pause as Salt puffs contentedly on his cheroot, eventually he leans over, blows another cloud in Perrin’s face and says simply
“Sativa” and then “Do you like it?”
“Um well it is a most unusual aroma, I’m not sure I have ever encountered it’s like before.”
“Oh I’m very sure you haven’t Mary.” He looks at the rest of the table. “Hmm I’m getting hungry, Oi Professor Cabbage” he says looking at Babbage “order food, will you, there’s a good fellow.” The latter is said with a mock civility and Babbage, eager to move the evening on, does not rise to the bait, but simply summons their ever-present waiter.
“Order whatever you want, The Cadre are paying, it’s mostly good, especially the chops.” Babbage is keen to seem helpful and placate their guests.
To Perrin the menu is a revelation, brought up to eat whatever was in front of him whether at home or in University rooms the choice is bewildering, roasts, soups stews, pies and more than one type of fish identified by name no less. Free will when it comes to ordering food is an alien concept to Perrin and although suddenly utterly ravenous he struggles to choose.
“Steak” says Salt, “rare.”
“Certainly sir” replies the waiter, “and for the vegetables?”
“Oh, they can order for themselves.” Says Burton with an evil grin.
Perrin, grateful that someone has made a choice dutifully follows suit, the steak is bought along with a large plate of roast potatoes. The rested steak has produced a gravy composed of rendered fat and meat juices and combined with the salted crispy potatoes it is one of the most delicious things Perrin has ever tasted and he consumes it with gusto along with his beer. Some part of his brain registers the fact that his appetite is unusually heightened but the rest of his senses revel in the onslaught of well hung steak properly cooked. Eventually he looks up from his plate, it appears there is a natural lull in the proceedings, Salt rolls another cheroot rocks back on his chair and fixes the other side of the table with a stare.
“So why the fuck are we here then my little bunch of Mary’s?”
Herschel starts to open his mouth, but before he can utter a word, Babbage decides this is an appropriate moment for him to reassert his position as the leading gentleman scientist of the age.
“As you are all no doubt aware the well-known kinetic idea of gases is a step so important in the way of explaining seemingly static properties of matter by motion, that it is scarcely possible not to anticipate the oncoming arrival of a complete theory of matter in which all its properties will be seen to be merely attributes of motion. This combined with Mr Daltons proposals on the fundamental structure of matter with atoms and the recent advances in the understanding of elements leads us to the inevitable conclusion….
“That you are a complete windbag” says Salt from underneath his hat.
Babbage unused to being interrupted in full oratory mode splutters indignantly.
“Sir if I might crave your indulgence to continue all will become clear”
“Well based on that utter nonsense things can only improve”. Says Burton with a scowl.
Undaunted Babbage ploughs on whilst Herschel stares intently at the ceiling mouthing what appears to Perrin to be silent prayer.
“Power gentlemen, it’s all about power, with enough power you can move anything. All the recent advances in our society, the railway, the telegraph, the analytical engine, electricity, they all require increasing amounts of power in the form of steam. All these point to one inescapable conclusion that if the Empire is to endure and prosper it needs more power to do more, move more, manufacture more. To keep us ahead of the rest of the world we need more steam…..”
“As opposed to just hot air you mean” Observes Burton drily. “Look Babbage I am not a follower of your clockwork universe that denies our spiritual dimension. I do not believe you can find God in your diabolical equations, but, and I say this with all the indifference I can muster, surely it is obvious that we have all the steam, we want because we have its creator, its’ very own God. We have power in the form of coal, vast amounts of coal right here under our feet and under our exclusive control.
Babbage glares at Burton with a mixture of fury and indignation
“For Heaven’s sake Burton as any man can plainly see coal is finite and if we fail to find a substitute then we deserve to end up frostbitten, not to mention the infernal smog it produces. Also I believe in God as much as the next man as I am repeatedly tired of having to reaffirm. However, I believe he reveals himself to us in the mathematics of the universe not in the pomp and corruption of the church. He has created a world for us governed by rules and principals that we are just beginning to understand and apply to our advantage. I believe it is our duty, our calling, our responsibility not to be prevented by blind faith and dogma from perusing such understanding by the means of scientific investigation and rational thought. Progress comes from observation and experimentation…..”
“So where is the soul in your observations and experiments Babbage, where is the spirit of man held? What do your formulae and numbers tell us about belief and that indivisible part of being human that is not subject to equations and matter? Where is the emotional human heart in your world? Of course, I am here assuming you are human and not just some mechanical automaton clothed in flesh obeying one of your dammed programmes.”
Perrin observes that by now Babbage and Burton are oblivious to anything and anybody apart from each other, both leaning across the table staring intently at each other, opposites that rather than attract are repelling each other. There is no middle ground the irresistible force has met the immovable object. Herschel has come to the same conclusion and tries to change the subject.
“Gentlemen, stimulating and enlightening as this conversation is…”
“Speak for yourself”, says Salt. He takes a long swig from his brandy and fixes his colleague with an intense stare. “Look Burton, I enjoy a bit of bear baiting as much as the next man and Baggage here is easy meat, but I am getting tired of all this crap, we are in London with all the pleasures of the flesh available on tap and my cock is itching for some nice moist quim. So, can you please just tell these Mary’s to sod off and we can go and have some fun.”
“We need the money.” Mutters Burton from the side of his mouth.
“What the fuck…..” Salt tips his chair upright and glares at Burton. “What the fuck do you mean “we need the money”. You said you were going to get a fat purse off your publishers for that mucky book we translated from our Indian chums.”
“That was the plan,” concedes Burton. “However, we appear to have run into a little problem of piracy.”
“Piracy! If anyone’s a fucking pirate round here it’s us” Says Salt getting increasingly irate, his voice going up several decibels.
“It would appear that sales have not been at the level anticipated due to the fact that very few people were prepared to actually buy the book, preferring to get sections of the most salacious bits by means of black market copies for which I and by direct implication you get no money for.” Burton looks at the floor rather than engage with Salt’s furious expression.
“Bastards, utter utter bastards! I’ll string ‘em up by their scrotums and stuff rats up their arses, I’ll gouge their eyeballs out with a spoon, I’ll cut their fucking nipples off with a rusty knife….. Where are their morals and respect for the creators of art!”
“Oh dear” Says Babbage with a smug air “I fear the vampires of literature have made it their prey and it is now in the gutter, along with other obscene carrion where they feast on its entrails…..”.
With a speed that belies his size and bulk Salt instantly grabs Babbage by the throat, one huge muscular hand contracts and Charles Benjamin Baggage, celebrated polymath of the age, and Cambridge Lucian Professor of mathematics begins to splutter and turn blue.
“You fat pompous little twat,” Salt tightens his grip and, with little apparent effort, begins to lift Babbage from his chair. Babbage wriggles and thrashes about, his hands desperately clawing at Salt’s arm to no avail. Odd gurgling noises emerge from his mouth and his eyes begin to bulge. Both Perrin and Herschel look on appalled and frightened in equal measure.
“Oh for God’s sake put him down Salt.” Says Burton in a resigned tone. “We don’t need any more trouble and we do need the money.”
Salt stares first at Burton with a look of outrage at the injustice of the situation and then at Babbage with contempt, with a final squeeze he lets go and Babbage crashes back down into his chair wheezing and coughing. Herschel hands him his handkerchief and Babbage alternately blows his nose and wipes his forehead with the unfortunate result that he smears himself with a combination of drool and snot which does nothing to improve his disposition.
“You ape….you brute, you..you … cad…you… ruffian, how dare you manhandle me in such a fashion. I could have choked to death.” Babbage has righteous anger on his side, but before he can continue Burton interrupts.
“Oh do shut up Babbage, if Salt wanted to kill you you’d already be dead, he was just toying with you, just a bit of fun. Wasn’t it Salt?
Salt stares at his now empty bottle of brandy and says nothing.
“Wasn’t it Salt?” Perrin notes that the level of authority in Burton’s voice has risen.
“Yeah bit o’fun that’s all. No hard feelings eh.” Salt holds out his hand. Babbage, still terrified, realises he has no choice but to try and bring the matter to an end takes it gingerly. Salt starts to shake his hand and at the same time squeeze it. Babbage bites his lip and starts to whimper.
“Oh for fucks sake will you stop playing around Salt.” The authority in Burton’s voice is absolute. Salt instantly let’s go and instead waves his empty brandy bottle at Herschel.
“What say we celebrate our new partnership with a toast friend Herschel.” He turns to look at Perrin. “Mary here has run out of her cordial, and could manage a baby and I do believe Professor Average could do with a restorative.”
“Indeed”. Agrees Herschel. “A capital idea Mr Salt. I think it highly advantageous that we return to the actual purpose of this meeting. So I propose that we let Mr Perrin tell us the reason. I further suggest,” here he looks directly at Babbage,” that he be allowed to talk uninterrupted and without comment except for the purposes of clarification. Agreed?” Herschel takes the ensuing silence as acquiescence. “Mr Perrin, would you be so good as to explain what exactly has brought you to our attention.”
Perrin feels his mouth turn dry and realises he is ill prepared for such a volatile situation, he is more accustomed to polite and civil discourse without copious amounts of alcohol being involved. He is also painfully aware of the pressing need to relieve himself after having consumed several pints of beer. However, this does not seem to be the time or place to request an interlude. Still, he reflects, at least he has an incentive to be brief.
“Um well…I errr am..of course most grateful errr for the opportunity to err…umm.”
“Clarification please Mary,” Salt interrupts, “are you going to get a fucking move on? Otherwise we will be here all night and I need a piss.”
“Yes, yes of course Mr Salt.”
“It’s Salt, just Salt.”
“Yes well thankyou err…Salt. As I was saying I have recently completed my thesis “The Myths and Legends of Power” which looks at historical stories and accounts of seemingly unexplainable sources of energy often attributed to gods and demons. One story I came across was by the French explorer Pierre Savorgnan de Brazza who whilst exploring the west coast of Africa in the 1780’s claimed to have come across and observed a naturally self-perpetuating and self-regulating power source that created vast amounts of steam out of seemingly nothing but rock and water within a cave. Revered and worshipped by the local Orungu people as the home of a god called Oklo, Brazza’s account of a “God of Steam” has, despite being an extremely detailed and lucid account of the phenomenon, been generally ignored and dismissed as nothing but a myth fueled by the local narcotic Iboga to which he and the Orungu people were apparently particularly fond of…….”
Simultaneously both Burton and Salt lean forward.
“I have heard of De Brazza,” interrupts Burton, “well thought of till he went mad, no doubt due to the drugs.”
“Actually, I believe it was syphilis, contracted in Paris.” Perrin feels more confident, he knows things they don’t. It is empowering. “Like Mr. Babbage I believe that ignorance has hidden much of Gods true intent from us and science is our guiding light to illuminate his wonders. I do not believe De Brazza was mad when he wrote about Oklo, I believe his account is a true and faithful account of what he saw as were all his other writings, which were accepted and deemed of great value at the time.”
“Except for this one,” Babbage cannot resist interrupting, “we have many forms of power, coal, wind, water which we currently use, others like the tide we are yet to exploit. Who is to say there are not yet other sources. De Brazza was ignored and ridiculed because of ignorance and a lack of rational thought. We have an opportunity to investigate, understand and command possibly an even greater source of power to provide us with more steam.”
“And if you and Perrin are wrong, what then?” Burton still has an air of indifference about him but Perrin notices he is more animated in his tone.
“Then you will have had a voyage, met a new people, and learnt a new language.” Herschel is closing the noose, appealing to Burton’s core reason for being, the love of exploration and experience.
“And there will be a new gateway for you to explore, not to mention your particular interest with certain local cultural activities.” Herschel concludes the pitch. His trap is complete. He waits for Burton to respond.
“He means sex and drugs Mary” Says Salt, “always a good reason for an adventure eh?” He looks at Burton grinning, he knows his friend too well.
Burton is silent staring impassively at Babbage. Perrin wonders is this because he is undecided or just irritated that a man who he dislikes on both a cultural and spiritual level, has piqued his interest. Or maybe he just needs the money. Finally, after what seems like an age Burton extends his hand.
“We have an accord Babbage. Salt and I will provide guidance and protection for this voyage. You will provide money and everything else to my exact specification.”
“Hallelujah! thank Christ that’s decided,” Salt stands and moves to the edge of the booth, “Out of the way Mary I’m so full of piss my tonsils are floating.”
Salt barges past out of the booth and through the pub. Perrin, relieved in more ways than one follows him.